Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida recently reshuffled his Cabinet with the aim of enhancing his public image by elevating the number of female members.
The increment from 2 to 5 in a 24-member Cabinet was not exactly groundbreaking. However, this slight initiative was marred when it was highlighted by the media that there was a noticeable absence of women among the 54 non-Cabinet political appointees, which include Deputy Ministers and Parliamentary Secretaries, marking a first since these roles were established in 2001.
This comes after Japan, as the host of a G7 Ministerial Meeting of Gender Ministers in June, was the sole country not represented by a woman.
Despite being a member of the OECD for close six decades, leading in economic prosperity and technology, and increasingly aligning with the values and social structure of other affluent nations, Japan still finds itself at 125th position in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index in 2023, with New Zealand ranking 4th.
This raises the question: has there truly been any significant progress in women’s status over the years?
Women continue to break glass ceilings
Change is happening, but at a gradual pace.
Japan has been home to several outstanding females in various fields: Chiaki Mukai was the first Asian woman astronaut in space; Ogata Naoko became the first Asian to lead the United Nations High Commission for Refugees; and Osaka Naomi made history as the first Asian tennis world champion.
Additionally, Koike Yuriko has been serving as Tokyo’s first female governor (equivalent to a mayor) for seven years now.
In 2021, Namba Tomoko became the inaugural female Vice-Chairman of Keindanran, Japan’s leading business organisation.
On the sports front, the Nadeshiko, Japan's women's football team, clinched the FIFA World Cup in 2011. They also showcased a strong performance in the most recent tournament in New Zealand and Australia, outscoring every other team and securing a 4-0 victory against the eventual champion, Spain, in a group match.
Yet while the tournament lifted the profile of women`s sport in Japan, national broadcaster NHK needed to be prodded to provide coverage.
In the past twenty years, female participation in Japan’s workforce has soared to an impressive 73%, overtaking both the U.S. and OECD average. More women are now continuing or resuming their careers post-childbirth.
In contrast to ten years ago, women are increasingly seen in roles once considered unconventional, ranging from bus drivers to TV commentators.
A couple of decades ago, women made up a mere 8% of Japanese prosecutors; however, this year, women accounted for half of the new prosecutor hires.
However, challenges persist, as Japanese women in the workforce are underpaid and underused.
While there have been advancements in some high-profile positions, a significant portion of the growth in female employment is attributed to part-time or lower-tier jobs. Roughly 40% of employed women hold part-time roles, in stark contrast to the 15% of their male counterparts.
Even in similar job roles, women often find themselves in positions with lesser prestige, reduced status, and decreased pay.
The representation of women at the top echelons of the corporate and governmental worlds remains scant.
Women CEOs in Japan are at a meagre 8%, a mere 1% increase from ten years ago. Furthermore, Japan ranks near the bottom of the OECD list for gender wage equality.
Despite governmental efforts to boost female participation in top-tier roles by implementing specific goals, these ambitions have largely fallen short.
In 2003, a goal was set for women to hold 30% of senior management roles by 2020. This objective has been deferred twice, with the latest deadline being 2030. Yet even this extended timeline appears challenging to achieve.
Social attitudes remain a constraint
Deep-rooted social attitudes have impeded advancements in regulation.
In 2015, Japan's Diet finally got rid of a ban on women remarrying after less than 6 months, children born to a woman within that time were legally regarded as children of the former husband.
Yet on an issue that looks straightforward to New Zealanders—the ability for women and men to retain separate surnames after marriage—the Diet has refused to move.
Naoko Sugiyama, Professor of American Literature at Japan Women's University, notes that couples can choose either surname, but in her experience, there is enormous social pressure to take the man’s name. “If the man changes his name to hers, he is often ridiculed as `henpecked`” she says. She is not surprised that in 2021, 95％ of newlywed couples chose the man's surname.
In 2018, a lawsuit taken by aggrieved women students blew the whistle on secret quotas in medical schools favouring men.
One of the schools conceded that women candidates often performed better in entrance exams, with higher scores and better communication skills, but claimed that the differences evened out later, so male candidates needed to be given preferential entry.
Bridging the gender gap, a “new growth engine”
For years, economists and corporate leaders have pinpointed the gender disparity as a significant growth prospect for Japan’s economy.
In 2019, Goldman Sachs projected that bridging the gender employment gap could amplify Japan’s GDP by 10%.
Similarly, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) this year identified greater female participation in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields as a “new growth engine” which if fully exploited could boost total factor productivity in Japan by 20%.
The Tokyo Stock Exchange is advocating for its affiliates to adhere to diversity criteria, emphasising women's inclusion in upper management. Companies not complying risk being removed from the listing.
The Exchange also promotes investment funds to pressurise companies to augment female representation on their boards.
While the reigning Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) defends the scarcity of women in high-ranking positions by citing a dearth of eligible female contenders, it's worth noting that a mere 12% of LDP politicians are women. Many corporations put forth a similar rationale.
However, experts like Sugiyama and New Zealander Deborah Hayden, a partner at FGS Global Japan, argue that institutions should proactively foster and maintain female talent.
Meanwhile, Japan's fertility rate is continuing to fall, with couples delaying marriage and limiting the number of children.
Economic indicators hint at the logic behind these choices. Despite being raised in one of the world's wealthiest societies three decades ago, the younger generation now feels financially strained and uncertain about what lies ahead.
Japan now has among the most generous parental leave in the world, as well as limits on overtime and equal pay for equal work.
Dual incomes have become essential for many couples, and fewer believe they have the financial capacity and personal commitment to raise children.
But lack of leadership remains a major challenge
While there have been attempts by both government and business leaders to initiate change, there remains a palpable absence of consistent and prominent leadership.
Hayden comments that whilst the government has made great strides through legislation to help increase the participation of women in the workforce, including increasing the numbers of childcare facilities to help women, “the problem now is actually with the companies to encourage women to shine”.
Despite the limited pool of candidates, several women are poised to potentially ascend to the role of Prime Minister.
However, their career trajectories are largely dictated by a seniority system that values tenure in office and familial connections.
Potential future leaders like Takaichi Sanae, Inada Tomomi or Obuchi Yuko (daughter of former PM Obuchi Keizo) recognise that their path to the top lies on patiently serving their time in office and maintaining harmonious relationships with the predominantly male factional leaders within the LDP.
One area where change is occurring is local politics, where women are far more active and visible than before. With central government controlled by the LDP, it is noteworthy that local administrations are spearheading social advancements, such as granting permits to LGBTQ couples.
However, as Sugiyama points out, the media seldom covers local women leaders, “When they cover the non-LDP women, they are more often than not ridiculed or criticised”.
The rather dismal conclusion seems to be that while women are contributing more widely and more visibly to Japanese society than ever, there is little sign of fundamental change in the deeply embedded social and personal attitudes that keep them as second-class citizens.
*The views expressed are those of the author.
-Asia Media Centre